Find the right wetsuit on a budget to start your open-water swim summer…
How we test
Testing wetsuits in early spring is no mean feat, and we opted to stay indoors this year, using the coolest pool we could find to avoid overheating. That did mean our regulation timed sprints were much easier; we do these for an extra point of comparison rather than to define our scores, which are gleaned from swimming in and swapping round as many suits as we could. We rated them for buoyancy, flexibility, inner comfort and ease of getting on and (more importantly) off. As with any kit, wetsuit choice is very personal so we’d advise getting out to a demo day to try some out if you can.
Buying a wetsuit: what to look for
Wetsuits use different grades of neoprene, with their own thickness and flexibility properties. Thinner neoprene is used for easy shoulder movement and most suits are coated to help you slip through water.
Wetsuit companies use thicker, more buoyant neoprene to help lift you nearer the surface of the water, lowering drag and helping you swim faster. Some suits have more buoyant legs for athletes’ heavy legs.
Some suits feature reverse zippers, which allow easy removal of the wetsuit to save time in races. These also help avoid the cord being pulled down during the swim – which could seriously hamper your race.
Cuffs and calves
It’s no good having a fast wetsuit if you can’t get it off in transition. Look for ‘easy off’ cuffs at the wrist with silicone coating, and either coated or tapered lower legs so the suit is easy to whip off in a hurry.
Some wetsuits use technology on the forearms designed to increase feel on the water – or even propulsion – during the catch phase. Efficacy of these panels varies, so don’t let them dictate your purchase.
Super Composite Skin (SCS) is a slick, hydrophobic coasting applied to the outside of the suit to reduce drag when swimming. Previously only seen on higher end suits, SCS is now available at all price ranges.
1. Decathlon NABAIJI
Markedly different to the other suits on test, both in style and in price, the Nabaiji was a bit of a mystery to our tester until she found out what it was for. It’s a ‘temperate water suit’ designed for swimming in water at or above 17C. So, it’s very thin with 1.5 and 1.8mm neoprene – it’s designed purely for a bit of extra warmth rather than to aid buoyancy. Because of its thinness it’s very easy to pull on and off, and is very flexible indeed. The zip felt a bit thin and not particularly secure at the top. Despite the great freedom of movement, our tester swam slower in this than any other suit, probably because the fit wasn’t quite snug enough at the wrists and neck, allowing some water in, and because it lacks buoyancy.
2. Dhb FULLSUIT
It’s no insult to call this a very standard entry-level wetsuit, because as the only cold-water wetsuit here under the three-figure mark, that’s a great deal. It’s a simple suit with no bells and whistles: Yamamoto 38 Smoothskin neoprene is used and at 3.5mm over most of the body, with thinner 1.5mm panels under the arms for better flexibility. Fit was adequate rather than sumptuous and in the water, although it was buoyant enough, there was no particular lift around the heavy torso and hips area so swimmers prone to sinking legs might need to look for more support. Its nice high neck kept most of the water out and it was pretty easy to get off.
3. Blueseventy SPRINT
The Sprint is made from the same Yamamoto 38 neoprene as the dhb suit and, also like the dhb, the neoprene is quite thick over most of the suit, with thinner and more flexible sections under the arm and in the gusset. So what does your extra £70 buy you? It’s coated with blueseventy’s Super Composite Skin to make you more slippery through the water, has silicone cuffs at the calf and wrist to make transition quicker, and is designed to be more buoyant on the bottom half to create a more ‘downhill’ swimming position. For our tester, though, this feeling didn’t materialise, although the suit is comfortable and flexible and fast enough, with a good low neck. It does come off nice and quick and the zip is well covered to avoid chafing. A solid performer.
4. Zoggs FX3
Though no stranger to swimming, this is the first year that Zoggs has put wetsuits on the market and it’s a welcome addition. This entry-level suit is designed for new swimmers and although its materials are similar to the other wetsuits at this price, its details and cut were appreciated by our tester and it’s a really comfy suit, translating into decent speed in the water. With 1.5mm neoprene down the arms, there’s no restriction of movement, and our tester especially liked the fit and feel of the legs, with Zoggs’ Lower Leg Zone tubular construction that allows better flexibility despite extra buoyancy added here to improve body position. Thicker 4mm neoprene panels around the hips help to guard against over-rotation as well as improving buoyancy for weaker swimmers, and even our very able swim tester appreciated it.
5. Zoot Z FORCE 1
This suit took top honours in last year’s Triathlon Plus test and was an immediate favourite again in the context of the 2015 crowd – though our tester this year wasn’t involved in or aware of last year’s test result. The snug fit wasn’t restrictive and the arms had total freedom of movement. It’s noticeably more buoyant than others, with 5mm neoprene giving extra lift and with it a boost of speed for heavy-legged triathletes. Before finding out anything about its features our tester said it ‘did something for my kick’ – basically, keeping the legs in a good position so that kick isn’t a worry. It feels super slippery through the water too. Overall, it feels like a higher-end suit than it is and its cut and buoyancy flatter beginners.
6. Zone3 VISION
Zone3 has become so well established in the British triathlon market that it’s easy to forget this brand is only a few years old. Its reputation for great value, well made and comfy suits is continued with the Vision, which gave a slick performance in our test. It’s not Zone3’s beginner’s suit – more a value suit for more ambitious or improving swimmers, with a number of features carried down from higher end suits including a one-piece super stretchy panel running across from arm to arm for brilliant freedom of movement. In the water, it doesn’t feel especially buoyant compared with some of the other suits on test, perhaps because it’s aimed at a slightly more able swimmer. It’s a really comfortable suit though, and the Pro Speed Cuffs on the wrists and calves still make this easily the quickest suit to get off.
7. Speedo TRI COMP
Stepping up the price scale slightly increases the technology on offer in these suits and the Tri Comp Fullsuit is a case in point. Different thicknesses of neoprene are in place to give buoyancy where needed and extra flexibility at key points of movement in your stroke. Speedo has gone further here, with sections running down the sides of the back and round to the hips designed to give maximum freedom of movement through the stroke, while the Body Positioning Regulator panels in the torso help you swim flat. Whether psychosomatic or physical, our testers noticed the effect of these panels on the torso and felt faster as a result. The panelling and snug fit meant it was tougher to get on than some, and the sealed cuffs – designed (very effectively) to keep water out while swimming – meant it was a struggle to get our arms in, though they didn’t present as big a problem as expected when removing the suit.
8. 2XU A:1
The A:1 fills a similar role to Speedo’s Tri Comp in that it’s good for people willing to spend a little bit more for a more technical, controlling wetsuit that will aid their stroke. You’ll spot features here that have gradually come down from the brand’s top-end suits, such as the Velocity Strakes in the thick chest panel, which help you swim straight and rotate evenly, and the floating zip panel, a design on the back that aims to stop the zip from restricting your reach. Though this suit isn’t the easiest to get on thanks to the stiff and compressive middle section, once on our tester really liked the feeling of security, especially once in the water. The soft catch panels were more noticeable than some others we’ve tested, and weren’t rigid or scratchy so didn’t hamper us getting the suit on or off either. Upper body movement isn’t restricted.
9. Mako NAIAD
The female specific Naiad felt like a more expensive suit from the off, with its well tailored fit and soft, smooth inner liner. Like many brands Mako has trickled down features from its more expensive suits so that if your budget won’t quite stretch to the limit, or you’re still new to the sport, you can still get a really good quality suit. The neck is high enough to keep water out but made from thinner neoprene, so it’s not irritating at all, and the ‘breakaway’ zip was easy to deal with and quick to get off. It was one of the faster suits in our basic sprint test, aided by lots of buoyancy in the bottom half of the suit (though not as much as we were expecting from the very thick neoprene here) and great freedom of movement at the top half. The forearms have fabric panels to give a real feel for the water, though we weren’t too keen on the plastic overlays which slightly stuck when we were rushing the suit off. Overall though this was a great suit to swim in.
10. Aqua Sphere CHALLENGER
This well-made and fairly simple suit was faster in the water than we expected, as on first glance it doesn’t look like amazing, though that’s mainly due to the restrained aesthetic. Our tester felt it was better suited to newer swimmers, though they’d have to be prepared to invest. Forearm panels are designed to help you catch the water but aren’t intrusive or stiff – they’re just made from an uncoated fabric that helps pull on the water. The cuffs and collar are designed to keep water out – we found the neck a little too effective as its seal design meant that, even though the neckline is quite low, we were always conscious of it. In motion it’s not the most buoyant suit here but the 4mm Aqua Drive panel will be enough help for most people and there are no issues with freedom of movement thanks to its stretchy material. We found it easy to whip off despite the snug cuffs.
11. TYR HURRICANE C2
The brand new C2 is packed with features but we weren’t sure they all worked, although the fit seemed to come up small on our tester which may have hindered the suit slightly. That made it tough to get on, though like many of the more solid suits on test the effect once on and in the water was of reassurance rather than restriction. The extra buoyancy around the chest and core helped keep us straight in the water and there was no real need to kick in this suit – body position is taken care of. Split times were fast in this suit but our tester did find their shoulders and arms tired quicker – again perhaps because of the smaller fit. Raised, firm Alpha Catch Panels were the most obvious on test and while we didn’t notice a better feel for the water with them, they were certainly no hindrance.
12. Orca SONAR
Though it sits towards the top of our sub-£400 test bracket, the Sonar looks and feels worth it. Fit felt more relaxed than previous versions we’ve tried – not because it’s baggy, but we found the old Sonar prohibitively tight. Improved stretch in the top half might have something to do with it too, and there are no annoying plastic panels on the forearms. The suit is designed to be a well-balanced option for intermediate swimmers and that suited our tester: the extra buoyant panels around the hips and torso gave a noticeable boost in the water, while the flexibility added by the new Super Stretch lining was also immediately noticeable. Our sprint times showed the difference too, with this making for one of the fastest splits on test.
13. Sailfish ATTACK
Outwardly there’s nothing to suggest the Attack should be up towards our top £400 test mark, but this suit was a really close contender for the top spot: our tester just loved swimming in it. Its brilliant flexibility from both the outer SCS neoprene and the soft inner lining made it feel really light to swim in and although it does have extra buoyancy in the torso to help your body position in the water, this never felt stiff or unnatural. The catch panels on the forearms – squared grooves that we honestly didn’t expect to do much – felt as though they were aiding the pull, too. The look of this suit went down well. Swimming in this won’t suit everybody – if you need a bit more stability and control in a suit then this probably isn’t for you – but we liked it.
14. Huub AURA 3:3
Although this does have plenty of techy features they’re not obvious, and the first impression is just of a nice-fitting, very comfortable suit with flexible neoprene and a soft stretchy liner. The neckline is nice and low so doesn’t irritate. It’s made from 3mm neoprene which Huub says offers women just the right amount of buoyancy, having less dense muscle mass than men. Getting the suit on, the Break Away zipper is quite a test for your swim partner’s dexterity, especially if the suit is a snug fit. Once on and in the water, it’s a really natural feeling swim and gave one of our faster split times; it compliments a good stroke rather than offering bags of support for a bad one. Our tester found the low neck to be one of the most comfy on test, which may seem minor but wouldn’t do after a 3.8km Ironman swim. It kept water out without being restrictive. Out of the water the zip comes into its own with a sharp tug releasing it.
Whether you’re looking for a buoyant, thick suit to paddle your way to T1 or a super technical suit to make the most of a strong stroke, there are plenty of options for you here. For beginners in particular, the revelation of swimming in neoprene is such that even the cheapest of the suits here will be stunning for a first season. That’s why we’ve given the top value award to dhb’s Fullsuit: at£95, its performance wouldn’t blow away a seasoned triathlete but its price would and it offers all a newbie needs for a solid swim. There are a few contenders for our peak performer award: the Zone3 Vision scored highly, while Orca’s Sonar and Huub’s Aura were among the ‘high 4s’. In the end the Sailfish Attack nailed it just for being a joy to swim in. The gold award goes to the Zoot suit, which really stood out from those closest to it in price terms.
Keep your eyes peeled for part two of our wetsuits review or head to our gear section to browse reviews of the latest triathlon kit.